Friday, February 25, 2011

I Like Big Books

good things come from China

...like me! Well, either indirectly if you only count my parents who were born in mainland China, or directly if you count Taiwan (where I was born) as part of China.

My real point is that lately I've noticed LOTS of public discourse that relate to east/west encounters and some inherent value judgments about the quality of products "from China". In my teaching profession, exchange programs in local schools are as common as exchange of educational ideas in the media (see below).

At our recent faculty meeting, we watched a movie "2 Million Minutes" that compared high school students in three countries - USA, China, and India - in the pursuit of academic excellence. The movie generated quite a bit of discussion among colleagues - comments ranged from "wow, I feel lazy and stupid" to "that movie is biased and doesn't show the whole story". I searched online for more information about comparisons of education in different countries, and found the following articles to be insightful:

- "Schools in China and U.S. move in opposite directions" article from Education Week points out (to me) the need for balance between discipline and creativity - but where's the balance???

- Unhappy with east/west comparisons? How about Finland? - NPR article

- Some interesting information about educational systems in different countries - I've never heard of this source before - greatschools.org - The article cites a few national/international reports, and this statistic jumped out at me: "40% of children in India enter high school." I don't know how much to trust that statistic, considering the whole article is second/third-hand information, much less interpret what it means exactly, but I think it's safe to make the general statement that Americans believe in K-12 education.

Many teachers seem unhappy about east/west comparisons, specifically China/U.S. They automatically point to the egalitarian philosophy of American public education and the unfair apples-to-oranges comparison with countries that supposedly leave many (more) children "behind". I understand this response since I teach many students who are not prepared for school and ALL with diverse learning needs and interests.

I attended public school in Taiwan - kindergarten and 1st grade, then after four years in New York City, we moved back to Taiwan for grades 4, 5, 7 and half of 8 (long story, involves repeats and skips) in the 1970s and 1980s. When I watched the movie, I chuckled through scenes that brought back many Taiwan school memories. My parents' decision (and sacrifices) for me to live and attend schools in the U.S. was based on educational opportunities, pure and simple.

I interpreted the movie "2 Million Minutes" as commentary on the lack of excellence in American schools, where we celebrate mediocrity and inflate grades. The desperate struggles of the high achieving (and unbelievably hard working) Chinese and Indian students in the film were heartbreaking to watch. I don't wish to turn back time on our relatively comfortable living standards in the U.S. I want our students to value hard work - ACADEMIC work.

I emphasize "academic" to include all school content areas - ALL the arts, math and sciences, health and physical education, home and careers, technology education, YES vocational education. That's a lot of school and studying and working, huh? Year-round school and longer school days, I'm there. Let's not run the rat race that our current daily schedule dictates. (My school - 41 minute class periods, 3 minute hall pass time between periods, 20 minute lunch.) Let's plan smarter class/study/rest&recreation schedules.

Back to general discourse about products from China, specifically related my OTHER favorite topic - food. In my search for "good food" (thanks to writers like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman as well as many like-minded friends and local farmers), I'm familiar with the idea of local food sources being healthier for individuals and the planet. We've made conscious consumer decisions to choose local foods often over the past few years, supporting our friend's CSA (Good Food Farm) in North Java, NY, the wonderful Duink Farms in Hamburg, NY, and natural food store Farmers and Artisans in Williamsville, NY.

And yet... once in a while... my mind (heart?) does a reflexive, defensive thing when I read something like "much of the stuff on the market has been imported from China" (beefolks.com explanation of why they don't sell clover honey) or an email promoting locally grown garlic (22 varieties!) that decried the mass popularity in the U.S. of a single type of garlic imported from ... CHINA. Wait a minute... SOME things from China are good, right???  Local is usually better, but not always? Even Mark Bittman says real Parmesan cheese comes only from Italy. (The Food Matters Cookbook, 24)

Sure, my mind is capable of juggling these internal conflicts to make good choices. Today I decided that my Chinese ancestors probably grew MANY varieties of garlic themselves, and I bought some locally grown garlic from Singer Farm Naturals at Farmers and Artisans.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

applesauce nut bread

My daughter's friend A is here to play. A's dad is very knowledgeable about cooking and natural foods. Last time G (my kid) was at their house to play, she ate homemade granola. He also told us about this interesting online honey retail source beefolks.com. I didn't want to serve A just any old processed lunch or snack, so I'm baking this applesauce nut bread with homemade applesauce (apples from our local natural foods store Farmers and Artisans). But guess what the girls chose for lunch? Campbell's soup. Wait - I added pieces of my roasted chicken in the chicken noodle soup HA! (Ok, they did love the bread.)

APPLESAUCE NUT BREAD
2 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 egg, beaten
1 cup medium thick applesauce
2 tsb melted shortening or oil (I USE 1/2 CUP MORE APPLESAUCE INSTEAD OF OIL)

Sift dry ingreds. Add egg, applesauce, oil (or more applesauce). Mix thoroughly. Fold in walnuts. Pour into greased pan. Bake 350 degrees, 45 minutes.

***I like using homemade applesauce best. I just slow cook apples, with brown sugar, cinnamon, and a little water.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Days 3 & 4

Lots of family, a little shopping, some eating, some TV and online entertainment. We'll shift gears the next 2 days into "social" mode - playdates and other social outings with friends.

I stopped in the public library this afternoon to return magazines (JUST in time - that one week lending period is so rigorous!). Found another magazine (I'm very picky and will only read the most current issues) and 2 nonfiction books - a cookbook by food columnist Mark Bittman (despite the daunting lack of photos, I found a tempting slow cooker recipe for "jook", Chinese rice congee that's really not my thing but should be easy to make with slow cooker) and a memoir by John Kralik 365 Thank Yous.

I hand-wrote probably hundreds of letters during my childhood and college/graduate school years to friends and family in the United States, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom - I sincerely wish I could collect those letters BACK to keep as a record of my life in those years. Despite my complete and happy immersion in digital communications and social media, I'd like to revive writing and mailing letters via United States Postal Service and actual STAMPS.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Day 2 of February break

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Today started extremely SUNNY! That's our front yard - shadows of my favorite tree, a birch. I didn't spend much time outside, as you can see my afternoon was occupied by this roasting endeavor. I bought the whole chicken from a local store called Farmers and Artisans that sells natural and healthy meats, produce, milk, and eggs. This chicken was processed/distributed by Murray's Chicken, and according to the tracking number, it grew up on lovely a farm in Pennsylvania.

In all the years that I lived in New York City apartments with my parents, I don't remember my parents ever using the oven to cook. Roasting is a new experience for me, and I enjoyed it enough today to want to buy a roasting pan soon. (I used Emeril's roasted chicken recipe on the Food Network web site - yummy!) It's really cheaper and WAY easier to buy a rotisserie chicken at our local supermarkets, but buying natural meats in a small store or from a farmer means cooking, which is better use of my time than, say, online shopping. Cooking is creating, just like writing or making greeting cards, and feels satisfying.

I wonder what my students have been doing? I think a few are on out-of-town vacations. Many are home. Several said, "I'm going to hang out with my friend." I haven't read a book yet, but I've read several magazines. (Just started using Zinio, digital magazine app for iPad - gorgeous!) I'm going to hang out with a few friends, too.

Blurry February

This picture shows a bit of the scenery on our horse-drawn carriage ride during the local university's Winterfest event today, a fun start to our mid-winter break. Other festivities included ice skating and broom ball on the mostly frozen campus lake, "chili in a bag" and hot chocolate in the nearby campus apartment complex. (I learned only today that chili in a bag means pouring chili into a small bag of chips. Yep.) The 50 degree weather of the past two days was really just a dream. Today's Winterfest - cold and snowy - is our reality!

I think February's curriculum feels blurry in my mind right now because I'm on vacation and the last 3 days of school were extremely out of the ordinary for me. Wednesday I was home sick with a cold (heavenly, compared to the following 2 days), Thursday I was still sick but in school scoring standardized assessments (in a windowless, poorly ventilated basement room, armed with tissues, hand sanitizer, and profuse apologies to my scoring partner who was also sick), and Friday was full of hyper teenagers (and teachers), assorted classroom games, and grade-level assemblies full of obstacle course games in the over-heated and extremely loud gymnasium HURRAY.

Here's what stands out in my mind the most - the teacher blogger scandal. I don't even know how to begin to share my reaction. I just keep thinking about that teacher and all the other teacher bloggers I know, including me. I have thought about confidentiality and privacy probably every single time I posted on this blog. What else can I say? Just keep writing what's important to me as a teacher and human being.

On that note, I'll add that I do remember teaching editorial writing and the author suggestion letter in February. March will wrap up the author letter (in which students suggest new story ideas to authors) and charge into the RESEARCH unit! Yes, this year's research relates to COLLEGE EXPLORATION. Students will choose any college or university in the United States, research to answer the essential question "how does this school help students succeed?", and write a thesis paper!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

January was book club month

Teacher bloggers are probably morally obligated to post on snow days, especially people who don't post often, like me. So I might as well post the SECOND time today something related to TEACHING. As in, directly related.

When I started teaching in 2003, literature circles were a leap of faith for me and my peer colleagues. We were fairly committed to teaching classroom novel units, unlike our more experienced colleagues who were equally committed to teaching from literature anthology textbooks. Literature circles were complicated to arrange, involved surveying student interest and juggling 120 student preferences (times 3, if I gave them "top 3" choices) and several different book titles. (I used 6 different books the first time. That was very stupid, but I was very young.) During the day or two that I used to do the math in my head, I enjoyed the student pleas for books: "PLEASE I want THIS book!" Music to my ears, until I issued the book assignment, then pleas turned into complaints. (I could write a book about how innate is the ability to complain.)

That was just logistics. THEN comes the leap of faith. How do you know what the students are reading or learning or discussing??? Oh the status checks, discussion role sheets, self-assessments, group assessments! Regardless, students enjoyed the social interaction, I enjoyed watching them discuss books, most of them read most of their books, and I was happy.

I've probably written already in this blog about my transition from classroom novel units to independent reading all-the-time (or reading workshop), so I won't rehash here. (Quick references: Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer and Nancie Atwell's The Reading Zone.) This is my second year teaching reading workshop, and by December I was tired of the fakers.

My friend and fellow English teacher CS taught me the term "labor faker", and I knew most of my students were reader fakers. We all worked hard in November to write novels for NaNoWriMo, and so we may have let their reading slide that month. December was ... December. (My 8th graders read A Christmas Carol in preparation for watching a 3 person "trunk show" production by local group Alleyway Theatre. My 7th graders read teleplay "Brian's Song" in the literature anthology, then watched the movie. Everyone wrote theme essays before winter break. Just in case you thought we slacked off haha!)

In January I told students I knew most of them were reader fakers (a few acted shocked at this idea, most gave me poker face), and I started Book Club. Here were the title choices:

8th grade - Maus I & II, Dairy Queen, Avalon High, Flush, Chains
7th grade - American Born Chinese, Dairy Queen, Avalon High, Flush, Chains

Hm, 6 titles just like my first ever Literature Circle unit. Well, this time

- I had only 36 students involved (my remedial/AIS classes did not do book club - January was editorial month for them!) instead of 120,
- I chose better books (many thanks to my English teacher colleagues and former principal who allowed us to use textbook money to order GOBS of young adult literature the past two years!!!) so students could and would truly read independently and discuss with peers, and
- I gave us those literature circle role sheets (questioner, summarizer, visualizer, etc.). Instead, I taught specific literary elements via mini-lessons, assigned the groups to identify the literary elements in their novels, reviewed their group answers, gave them feedback, then tested them individually on that exact same topic (sometimes different questions). They wrote their individual answers in Book Club Journals, which I graded.
- I used RAFT projects as culminating assessment. I'm pretty sure I used RAFT in previous literature circles.

It was really fun! I loved watching them read silently and independently in class - I told them quiet reading time is a GIFT from the universe. Usually I was grading papers (yeah, they generated a lot of journal responses to grade, and I wanted a fast turnover, but I used an easy 10 point rubric and didn't sweat it) during their reading time *GASP* but sometimes I joined them. In those quiet moments, I truly believed that silent sustained reading could lead to world peace.

I miss Book Club already. I considered doing it again NOW, but gathering just enough novels right before winter break really pushed all my teacher powers and luck to the edge. So while I regain my strength and resources, I'm teaching the editorial unit (might as well reuse my lessons! I found some cool resources - hopefully will share here another time) and recommitted to reading workshop. (Have I ever mentioned how I use our school library books in my classroom for Book Walks, many thanks to our awesome Library Media Specialist?) Silent sustained reading will save us all.

Year of the Rabbit

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May this Year of the Rabbit bring you happiness and prosperity! In preparation for the lunar new year, we hosted a small party at home last weekend for a few of my daughter's classmates and their families. The decor was semi-homemade - I created the "spring" sign and purchased a few from Oriental Trading Co. The food was mostly homemade - baked egg rolls, cold sesame noodles, slow-cooked adobo chicken with rice, dumplings (frozen bag from Asian grocery), winter melon soup. Spring really isn't evident here yet, but I have hope!

Today's snow day is my new year's treat! Granted, we aren't buried (yet) by the snowstorm, but there was plenty of ice on the roads this morning, and right now the white stuff is a-swirling!

Current read: The Fellowship of the Ring! I tried to read it years ago but gave up because I started with the Prologue and gave up. Silly reader! Last week I found the audiobook (that does NOT read the Prologue) in my library, resulting in wonderful work commutes despite the weather, so now Middle Earth has taken over my mind. (Yes, I've seen the movie, but PUH-LEEZE!) Once again, I'm enjoying this dual auditory/visual reading experience - listening to some Shakespearean actor read aloud this heartbreaking and beautiful story to me when I'm driving to and from work, and reading the book (a colleague's discarded and neglected copy that's in my classroom library) when I'm not in the car. Sometimes I read parts that I listened to already, and sometimes vice versa. This was how I read The Lacuna and The Red Pyramid last year, and last month A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Oh! I haven't mentioned that yet, huh?! A Thousand Splendid Suns - so beautiful, so sad. The sadness didn't leave me for days after I finished reading the book. (Yet another example of how the audiobook pulled me into a story. I only listened to the first few chapters, then read the rest of the book in one evening.)

Hurray - our snow plow guy showed up (FINALLY! Yes, we're spoiled, but so is using soft facial tissue to blow your nose when you're sick, something my daughter really enjoys today) - very good timing because the snow is now horizontal. I'm sooooo happy NOT to be driving home from work right now, with or without audiobooks!

PS - Yesterday I forgot my book at school, something I hope my students didn't do. Being very lucky (it's the year of the rabbit, see?), I then bought the Lord of the Rings eBook series from the Kindle store to read on my iPad! Happy reading to you all!!!